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Ordinary Days

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Hunter Foster and Lisa Brescia
Photo by Joan Marcus.

If the word "pedestrian" can have good connotations when describing a musical theatre score, surely it must with regards to Ordinary Days. Adam Gwon's songs for his practically bookless musical, which Roundabout Underground is presenting at the Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, are all New-York-in-June friendly, suggesting light-purple evenings spent strolling and laughing with a friend or lover on strangely hushed Manhattan byways. A stiff breeze or the rumble of traffic may occasionally pierce the mood, but nothing can deter you from enjoying the company of a single other person.

Unfortunately, the negative qualities of the word apply as well. Unerringly pleasing as each individual number might be, all 20 of them taken together do not reveal a score or composer of much adventurous intent. All the songs, whether set on the streets, on a Union Square rooftop, or in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, canter at exactly the same pace, with exactly the same lilts in exactly the same places. The lyrics always rhyme, and well, but always and only as you expect them to. The tunes bounce ingratiatingly, but always at a standardized height, no matter if a character is singing about the tragic end of a once-in-a-lifetime love affair, a viciously passive breakup, or just cleaning up an apartment.

So deciding what to make of Gwon's amiably ambling show, which has been stylishly directed by Marc Bruni, is not easy. It's hardly an amateur effort, and in telling the (barely) interlocking stories of two New York couples - the just-moving-in-together Jason and Claire (Hunter Foster and Lisa Brescia) and the met-by-chance just-friends-because-he's-gay Warren and Deb (Jared Gertner and Kate Wetherhead) - Gwon makes plenty of wistfully nice statements about the importance and difficulty of establishing deep connections in the city. Jason and Claire bicker because they're not used to living with someone else, and Warren and Deb argue because he's always focusing on the bigger picture and she's all about the details. It's a fine representation of four highly identifiable archetypes that make up the backbone (and the frustration) of everyday New York life.

Jared Gertner and Kate Wetherhead
Photo by Joan Marcus.

We're treated to an intoxicating number of thoughtful touches. Deb carries around a jar of nutmeg to ensure her Starbucks order always meets her stringent coffee requirements. Warren's current job is house-, cat-, and career-sitting for an incarcerated artist, which is harshly appropriate given the unassuming and self-defeating way he conducts all his affairs. And from the art they like to the ways they spend their time to how they behave in a sudden downpour, Jason and Claire physically embody the idea of opposites attracting.

But because, as the title suggests, there aren't many larger issues at stake, Gwon's survey course of these four personalities doesn't add up to much. The four collide only three times - at the beginning, at the Met, and at the end - which isn't enough to really tie together such a disparate collection of compositions. The show begins with four solos, one for each character, a desperately and disappointingly expositional choice. Warren singing about his quest to understand everyone's "Life Story" doesn't impact Jason and Claire, whose histories are foggy at best; their "Fine," is a savage argument set to sharply staccato chords, but Warren and Deb's own fractious relationship is barely defined in song. Deb sings a cleverly anxious number called "Calm," though to that point she's hardly looked the tensest one onstage.

Most of Ordinary Days, then, relies on your own affection for those onstage. They're all highly likable, with Gertner particularly endearing as a good-natured artistic soul selling too much of himself to make ends meet, and Brescia very convincing as a grown woman still struggling with her innate objections to little-girl frustrations. Foster, a bit uptight for the free-spirited Jason, and Wetherhead, who tends to mistake Deb's all-consuming faux sophistication as the real thing, have it slightly tougher, but still reveal compelling colors in their characters. They all come across especially well in their songs, which they sing - gloriously sans microphones - against Vadim Feichtner's fiercely controlled piano playing. And they're all of a piece with Lee Savage's elegant light-board-skyscape set, which Jeff Croiter smartly illuminates.

The evening as a whole, however, takes too few chances to ever completely cohere into anything truly transporting. This is a safe show about four people who are trying to lead lives that are anything but, and is never distinctive enough to escape its subject's well-worn inertia. This is the kind of thing that might charm at the just-concluded New York Musical Theatre Festival because of the promise you think it may realize after a few vivifying rewrites. But here, on a larger scale (if only slightly so), it feels like little more than a buoyant rehash of other emerging musical writers' concepts and sounds. The chief concern is garden-variety adults-growing-up angst, for example, and much of Gwon's underscoring sounds like a hopping-and-skipping knock-off of Jason Robert Brown vamps.

Gwon is unquestionably talented and inventive - his work here is never less than highly listenable, and it's tough to think of another up-and-coming writer who could so deftly dramatize the final scene, in which Warren, Deb, Jason, and Claire all find their purposes in flurries of fluttering paper. But so much of the lazy inspiration and going-halfway creativeness Gwon demonstrates here suggests that, like the quartet he's written about, he's still trying to find himself and his unique place in the current musical theatre. If he can do that, which seems not only likely but inevitable, his future efforts will almost certainly be less ordinary than Ordinary Days so often is.

Ordinary Days
Through December 13
Roundabout Theatre Company Black Box Theatre at the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 West 46th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Roundabout

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